Lewis Baird, Contributing Critic - United Kingdom
Twenty years ago in 1999 a brand new jukebox musical set on a Greek Island featuring the music of the iconic pop band ABBA debuted. Now twenty years later, the very same musical has just set off on another tour of the UK with an exciting new production and cast. I was lucky enough to be invited to tonight’s press evening at this tour’s first stop, the Edinburgh Playhouse. In 2004 I saw this musical at the same theatre, and it was that show that introduced me to the brilliant world of theatre, therefore this musical has a very strong place in my heart, as I wouldn’t be where I am now without ‘Mamma Mia!’ So, I wonder if this new tour will live up to my expectations?
The story follows the Sheridans (Sophie and Donna). After Sophie reads her mother’s diary she invites three men her mother slept with 21 years ago to her wedding, on the off chance one of them may be her father. Will Sophie discover which one really is her father and how will Donna feel about her past coming back to haunt her?
Sharon Sexton is funny and radiating emotion as the iconic matriarch Donna Sheridan. Sharon’s portrayal of this character really is original, there’s so much naturalism within her vision of Donna that there seems to be more understanding of the character’s actions and emotions than we have seen in other productions or on screen. This doesn’t stop Sharon absolutely nailing the outlandish comedy or the timing this requires, especially when Donna shares scenes with Tanya and Rosie. Sharon really does give us the perfect balance, and it seems that making this character much more relatable and accessible makes her more likeable. Who knew that was possible? The highlight of Sharon’s performance for me was the show stopping moment of the full production which packs one hell of a punch, and that’s Sharon’s rendition of ‘The Winner Takes It All’. The talent in her vocal work alone in this musical number is simply staggering. Meryl who?
Nicky Swift is absolutely hilarious as Donna’s bubbly best friend, Rosie. From the offset Nicky’s characterization of Rosie is loveable and one which seems Jennifer Saunders inspired with the comic energy she presents to the audience on stage, definite Edina Monsoon vibes. The audience lap up this character. Her performance of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ is utterly brilliant and not an ounce of energy was spared to keep the audience laughing. Helen Anker as Tanya supplies a sassy, glamourous and hilarious diva who owns the stage as soon as she enters. I have seen this show now four times, and Helen definitely is my favourite Tanya, the presence on stage suits the character along with the confidence and clear fun that Helen is having. ‘Does Your Mother Know’ is another highlight for me within this production. Helen’s relationship with the ensemble is clearly great through how enjoyable they find this musical number.
The champagne casting in this production is Sharon, Nicky and Helen, their dynamic on stage is one which is instantly recognizable as the one audiences fell in love with 20 years ago. The three actresses definitely are debuting one of the best versions of the Dynamos on stage.
Rob Fowler as Sam really does show the audience a new depiction of the character. As I am sure audiences who are coming to see the stage musical directly from only seeing the film will expect this character to be a loveable, handsome, flirtatious older man. However, in this version of the character Rob provides us a colder and more direct Sam who is not afraid to hold back. With this version of Sam, in terms of the naturalism that Sharon gives Donna, throwing Rob in the mix really works and the two are a perfect dynamic, especially during the emotional number ‘S.O.S’.
Daniel Crowder is doing his thang as Harry Bright. Daniel brilliantly supplies camp, awkward and funny energy into this character. His renditions of ‘Thank You For The Music’ and ‘Our Last Summer” were lovely. The only critique I would have is that there isn’t enough of this character on stage, I think this is a mix of not being included as heavily as the other possible dads and also at points Daniel not having a large enough presence in large character filled scenes. Jamie Kenna is tall, hilarious and even at points outrageous as the hunky Australian, Bill Austin. Jamie’s short time on stage didn’t matter as it was filled with either brilliantly delivered humor with Nicky as Rosie or the poignant performance of ‘The Name of The Game’. And oh my goodness, if you want to hear three thousand people in fits of laughter then just watch Jamie and Nicky perform ‘Take a Chance on Me’. What a hilarious rendition, especially that (climactic) ending.
Emma Mullen gives a superb performance as Sophie Sheridan, her vocals are simply stunning, she really does deliver during the emotional numbers that this character is given. Especially ‘I Have a Dream’, her rendition is guaranteed to give you goosebumps, if you can hear it over the crowd screaming at the finale. Thor looking Toby Miles sweeps the audience away as Sophie’s fiancé, Sky. As much as his appearance is definitely on show to make members of the audience drool, Toby’s vocal and acting ability is great suited to the fun loving and adventurous Sky.
James Willoughby Moore is a standout in the supporting cast as Pepper. James supplies so much energy and adaptability to this role that the audience are staggered and love to cringe at his awful attempts of flirting with Tanya. James brings the best portrayal of this character stage with the geeky and goofy features that his vision of Pepper has. I absolutely loved it. I thought this was such a good portrayal and completely different to the other productions. Marie Finlayson and Mariella Mazzilli both are fantastic as the bubbly, excitable Ali and Lisa, best friends of Sophie.
The ensemble for this musical are very energetic, supplying great dancing and vocal skills. They supply such a great dynamic to the scenes. They are as follows, Eamonn Cox, Matthew Ronchetti, Taylor Bridges, Ambra Caserotti, Martin Dickinson, Billy Downes, Katie Dunsden, Matt Kennedy, Lewis Kidd, Emma Odell, Blair Robertson, Kaine Ruddach, Ellie Rutherford (Assistant Cheoreographer), Chiara Sparkes, Amy Thiroff, Sarah Wilkie and Cameron Vear.
Phyllida Lloyd directed this tour and has directed the hit musical since it debuted in 1999. Her well balanced vision makes the rather outlandish yet lovable book by Catherine Johnston land perfectly. Assisting Phyllida in directing is the tour’s resident director Nikki Davis Jones. This extra touch of having Nikki, a well-known musical theatre actress, in the directing chair maybe what is elevating this production from recent previous tours. As I have seen previous tours fall flat with cast not providing enough energy or adaptability to make up for the cut down of set/lighting/effects for the touring production. However, this tour has a cast which are ready to smash every performance. Another superb part of this tour is it’s band, with musical director Mark MacDonald making sure that ABBA’s music is still playing in all it’s glory to the packed out audiences. Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is simply staggering, the energy that his movement supplies to the musical numbers is astonishing, it completely lifts moments which could be under energized. Mark Thompson’s original design for ‘Mamma Mia!’ was simple yet highly effective, however 20 years later for probably the 4th or 5th UK Tour, the set has been scaled down and has turned from being simple to being bare. As much as it still works for this production due to the cast being that adaptive to drive the audience’s imagination, previously it has clearly been too little for other casts/creative teams to work with. Howard Harrison’s lighting lifts this simplistic set and adds the colour that ABBA numbers deserve, plus a great spectacle for the 3 number finale.
How can you resist this musical!? ‘Mamma Mia!’ continues to be an astonishing hit which audiences return to again and again! I fell in love with this musical all over again with this new tour. After a few tours which just weren’t ‘Super Trouper’, we definitely have a winner in this brand new tour with a new cast celebrating the ABBAtastic musical’s 20th anniversary. Check out the dates for the tour below!
Currently at the Edinburgh Playhouse- https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/mamma-mia/edinburgh-playhouse/
Here are dates for the rest of the tour. - https://mamma-mia.com/uk-and-international-tour/